The Hal Spacejock series

What is POD - Print on Demand?

Print on demand (POD) is a technology for generating very small quantities of a book - even one copy at a time. Thanks to this technology and the phenomenal reach of the internet, many companies have sprung out of nowhere. They'll take your manuscript, charge a small typesetting or setup fee, and make your book available from and every bookstore on the planet.

Sounds great, but there are still problems with Print on Demand, whether the process is used by a company or an individual. For example, POD books are usually more expensive than those printed using conventional means.

POD books are nearly always non-returnable, which is another point against them. Normally, a bookstore can return unsold copies for credit (if they couldn't do this, they'd go broke. They can't predict which books will sell and which will languish on the shelves - not even publishers can do that, and they're the ones buying up manuscripts in the first place!)

With POD books, a customer goes into a store and places an order using the ISBN, author and title. In many stores, the customer has to pay for the book there and then, because the bookstore doesn't want to end up with a copy they can't sell. (They've all been conned by unscrupulous authors who've ordered copies of their own books and never returned to pay or pick them up.)

The bookstore order is handled by the POD company, who print and ship. It used to take a long time, but this has improved and it is now down to a few days.

The next problem is one of perception. There are good books being published using POD, but the vast majority are works which, before the advent of the technology, would have languished in slush piles. Many POD publishers will accept anything if the author is willing to pay the bill, and that means book stores have been deluged with people trying to get POD books onto their shelves. The last thing they want is for their regular customers to end up with someone's first draft, and as there's no way they're going to personally read everything they're offered they generally refuse to take POD books point blank - although they will order copies in to fill firm orders. But how do they know it's a POD book? There are more clues than you'd expect:

The paper. Many POD books are printed on white paper - since the machines that print them are basically huge laser printers, this shouldn't come as a surprise. I recommend cream-coloured paper for fiction - that's more in line with the industry standard.

The sales rep. Bookstores order stock through a handful of reps, or through head office if it's a chain store. When someone comes in with a cardboard box full of books under one arm all kinds of alarm bells start ringing.

The imprint. If the book store owner has never heard of the publisher they'll probably enter the name on their computer to see what else they've published. Or they might scan the barcode on the back of the book. Unless...

No EAN barcode or ISBN. These cost money, so they're often left off POD books. I recommend you do things properly, and get an ISBN.

No CIP data. Catalogue information used by libraries. This is free in Australia, but you have to apply for it. Part of the requirement for getting this data is that you have to submit a copy of your book to the National Library and another to your State Library.

The format. As in the size of the book. Most paperbacks are A or B format, or trade paperbacks. If the paper hasn't already given them a clue, books which are almost exactly the size of A4 or Letter size paper cropped in half do the trick.

The price. As mentioned above, POD books cost more to print, and as a consequence the retail price is often set too high.

And the killer... No returns. The bookstore has to be able to hand them back for a full refund if they don't sell. While you might be able to deal with your local store personally, book stores elsewhere will just turn them down.

All of these things count against POD books. You can rant all you like, but it won't change the perception that POD is primarily used for books which don't have a big enough market to make a proper print run worthwhile.

What's the alternative?

Trade publishers. Unlike POD publishers, they do the following:

Print thousands of copies up front, just like newspapers and magazines.

Get your books into brick & mortar bookstores across the country, which is where the vast majority of books are sold.

Allow stores to return books for credit against future purchases.

A POD publisher does none of the above. They may argue that they're modern and efficient, but an author would (or should) ask how people are going to pick their work off a bookstore shelf if it's not there in the first place. Being available is nowhere near the same as being stocked.

Having listed the pros and cons ...

I should point out that I've used a POD printer (Lightning Source) for my latest novel. The cost price is low enough to make it worthwhile, the print quality is excellent, they offer cream-coloured paper and my book will never go out of print.

Please remember that none of my articles are meant to discourage. In fact, they're all written for the me of ten years ago, the writer who was ready to take the next step but didn't know what that step was.

About the author: Simon Haynes is the author of over 25 novels. He also designed and created yWriter.

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